An F1 team boss who’d give you a lift home? Michael Scarlett worked at Brabham and recalls the friendly atmosphere
My spell with Brabham, at the time when Jack started building racing cars, came about after mechanical and production engineering training on a student apprenticeship at Hawker Aircraft in Kingston, Surrey, and HND studies at Kingston Technical College. At the end of the usual five years of an apprenticeship, I worked in the Hawker stress office in a very minor role on the P1127 — which turned out to be the prototype Harrier.
Then, lacking work (like most of my generation of Hawker apprentices), I left after six months in the spring of 1961 to pursue my schoolboy enthusiasm for motor racing. I next enquired at the Cooper Car Co’s premises in Hollyfield Road in nearby Surbiton about a possible drawing office job under designer Owen Maddocks.
Guy Griffiths, Cooper’s sales manager, I think, said such a position was not available immediately but would come up later. In the meantime, would I like to work on the shop floor? Given Cooper’s standing in motor racing since its two drivers’ World Championships with Jack Brabham in 1959 and ’60, I jumped at the chance and started there immediately.
As I got to know the people at Cooper, including Owen Maddocks, I realised there was no chance of the alleged drawing office job, and much as I enjoyed working there, and incidentally learning to weld and sif-bronze — something I had not done in my apprenticeship — there wasn’t the future I was looking for. So when I heard whispers that the genial Jack Brabham — always happy to talk to us workers — was setting up on his own to build racing cars, I wrote to him care of Jack Brabham Motors of Chessington enquiring if there was any sort of drawing office job there.
There was, and I started under Jack’s designer Ron Tauranac as a junior draughtsman in the small office crammed into the Repco company’s warehouse near the bottom end of Victoria Road, a shopping street in Surbiton. There I made the acquaintance of Peter Wilkinson, the friendly foreman in charge of the workshop, and Tim Wall, Jack’s quiet and very effective racing mechanic. Not that there was much of a workshop in that place. Or much in the way of staff.
On one occasion this was a small mercy. Jack had bought a Lotus 21, which Tim was working on one day. Like most racing cars of the time, it relied for electrical power on a neat little Varley lead-acid battery which sat in the floor. Also sitting in the glassfibre floor — temporarily and not intentionally — was some spilt fuel. When poor Tim accidentally crossed the terminals of the Varley battery with a spanner, the petrol caught fire, as did the entire car.
The resultant blaze was confined to the Lotus and was extinguished, though not soon enough to save it. The smoke made a pretty awful mess of the contents and the inside of the building, including our office and some of the drawings.
I can’t recall exactly when the original name of the firm — Motor Racing Developments, founded in 1961 — was changed to Brabham Racing Developments, but one cannot forget why it was changed.
One of Jack’s many friends was motor racing correspondent Jabby Crombac. Jabby was an extraordinary Frenchman in that he spoke English if anything rather better and more clearly than most Brits. It was he who pointed out to Jack that the initials of Motor Racing Developments, MRD, may have been innocuous enough in English, but in French it would not do.
Why? Because, as Jabby pointed out in his immaculate English — in this case interspersed with some French — the way a Frenchman pronounces those initials — written phonetically, ’em air day’ — sounded perilously like the French word for what one may politely call excreta; merde. This was not the ideal name for a racing car.
Relatively soon we moved from the Repco warehouse to Brabham Racing Developments’ new home at Weylock Works, New Haw, Surrey, not quite within a stone’s throw of Brooklands. As you drove up from the road into New Haw itself, you found yourself with a canal on your left and soon the drawing office on your right. These were followed closely by the main workshop, then the racing workshop, and beyond that the premises of Jack Brabham Conversions, which under manager Mike Puckey moved there from its Chessington quarters.
My job soon became a mixture of detail drawing and van driving. I’d first done some of the latter while at Cooper’s in their surprisingly rapid — if prone to easily provoked roll oversteer — Austin van on trips to various suppliers. My knowledge of these was useful to Ron Tauranac: Specialised Mouldings, then in Crystal Palace (maker in those pre-monocoque days of glassfibre bodies); Frank Coltman’s Progress Chassis Company up the far reaches of London’s North Circular Road (spaceframe builder, originally for Lotus); Sterling Metals (supplier of magnesium alloy castings for wheels etc); Hewland Engineering at Maidenhead (gearboxes, of course); and the relatively local firm of Surbiton Plating (plating of suspension members).
At first I was given the use of various spare cars from Jack Brabham Motors at Chessington. The Renault Dauphine stands out as one of these, teaching me that rear engines and poor back wheel location is a dodgy mix. Later we had the use of a decent van.
The drawing office saw some interesting people, not least in fellow draughtsmen like Mike Hillman and later the inimitable Tony Southgate. Tony was a remarkable draughtsman in that his works bordered on pieces of art thanks to his superb lettering quality and standard of drawing.
Quite a variety of racing folk were seen at New Haw. At the lower end of the scale was when I met someone who later turned out to be one of the Great Train Robbery gang: Roy James flummoxed Ron Tauranac when he paid the £1500-odd for the Brabham FJunior car he’d ordered with a large bag of notes. Ron hurried into our office asking me to drive the cash to our bank in Kingston; I have not often tried to drive so inconspicuously, safely and circumspectly. Much higher in esteem and ability — and of course honesty — were Frank Gardner, who entertained and taught me some most useful and colourful `Strine’, Denny Hulme, who was a delightful bloke, and later Dan Gurney, who was an amiable man without any ‘side’.
It was of course Jack Brabham who was the most remarkable racing man. Everyone around that time will recall his superb car control — he never had a serious accident of his own making. At work with us he was one of the blokes, always friendly and thoughtful, never on any sort of high horse, even though his achievements amply entitled him to lord things over everyone else. He never did.
I forget why, but once I found myself without my usual vehicle, which meant returning to my Richmond home by public transport. Jack heard this and said he was going that way that evening. He also briefly came inside — to the surprise and delight of my parents.
Ron Tauranac was a complex character. Not given to the inspired originality of a Colin Chapman, he made up for this with his entirely sound, safe designs. Brabham cars were never responsible for injury to their drivers through structural failure, credit for which must go to Ron. He was not however the easiest of men to work for, and would apparently change his mind about how something should have been drawn. This happened not only to me, and in my case I took to noting the original brief in a notebook.
Phil Kerr, Jack’s manager who ran Jack Brabham Motors, was another easy-to-get-on-with man whom we saw on several occasions. Friends at New Haw included Nick Goozée, now managing director of Roger Penske’s British arm in Poole. David Mills was our genial office manager in whose Sunbeam Rapier we rode to our daily lunch in New Haw itself. It was a great experience, which I would not have missed for the world.